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article by UKNIWM Project Officer, Frances Casey

The anniversary of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July has made me think recently of that equally disastrous attack, intended as a diversion and strategic support to the main Somme offensive, which took place at Fromelles on 19th July 1916. In the news, following the discovery of a burial pit containing the bodies of approximately 400 Australian and British soldiers in 2006, the Attack at Fromelles was the first engagement on the western front for the newly arrived Australian Imperial Force, and for many it was also to be their last. The attack is characterised by a catalogue of errors and poor judgement, for the plan of attack assumed that an assault in force in broad daylight would take the enemy by surprise, without allowing for the possibility of the advance being held up. In the event, the Australian 8th and 14th Brigades were caught above ground as, horrifyingly, they encountered trenches flooded with rainwater on their advance. They were trapped, unable to retreat or to move in either direction due to quick encirclement by German machine gun posts. Elsewhere, poor communication caused a futile and doomed one-pronged advance by the Australian 58th Battalion who were unaware that the British had cancelled their side of the assault.

The nature of the attack, which completely failed in its objective to divert the Germans from the Somme front and capture the German-held salient at Fromelles, explains the gravity of the Australian losses at over 5,000 men. These losses, made over just one day and night, led to the establishment of the only cemetery in France dedicated solely to Australian soldiers of the First World War.

V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery Memorial, Fromelles

V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery Memorial, Fromelles

Unlike the usual format of Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, the V.C Corner Australian Cemetery near Fromelles does not have headstones. In the battlefield searches carried out by the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission in the 1920s, over 400 bodies were found at Fromelles, but none could be identified and as a result, they lie buried in unmarked plots.  Each man killed in the attack at Fromelles is instead commemorated on an imposing memorial, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, in the V.C Corner Australian Cemetery.  

According to the charter of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, every individual casualty is entitled to be commemorated by name, either on a headstone or, if their body was not found or identified, on a memorial to the missing/ unidentified. The CWGC does not commemorate individuals in more than one place. So, it does seem likely that, with the planned identification of individuals from the Fromelles mass grave using DNA, the names will slowly be removed from the Memorial and transferred to headstones in the new cemetery, planned outside the town of Fromelles for 2010. Certainly, a precedent for this exists with the Menin Gate.  What will be interesting to see, is whether the wish to identify individuals in the newly discovered mass grave will inevitably lead to a desire to identify the nameless interments in the V.C Corner Australian Cemetery.

Thinking about the unidentified and missing men of the attack, I wondered whether there might be memorials in the UK or Australia commemorating individuals killed at Fromelles in 1916. A search of the UKNIWM Channel4 names database brought up seven memorials which referred specifically to Fromelles. Six of these were to the battle of the same name, which had taken place just over a year previously on 9th May 1915. One memorial, a Roll of Honour in Peterborough District Hospital, commemorates Sgt Sidney Green, of the 59th Bn Australian Imperial Force, ‘Reported Killed in Action 19th July 1916 at Fromelles’.  Sidney Green was 26 when he died, and in the 1920s the IWGC received a returned casualty form from his family. This told them that he was the son of Patience and the late James Green and the husband of Irene Elizabeth. Described as ‘Native of Staines, Middlesex’ he was recorded as living at 7 Manningham Street, West Parkville, Victoria, Australia. Peterborough is not mentioned, although the Roll of Honour also has an address for him at Fletton Avenue, Peterborough.

Sgt Sidney Frank William Harold Green, from The Bond of Sacrifice

Sgt Sidney Frank William Harold Green, from The Bond of Sacrifice

I did not find Sidney Green named on Staines War Memorial, and it may be that when this memorial was erected, there was no longer anyone living in the town who knew him. What was more surprising was that he is not on the Parkville War Memorial on Royal Parade in Melbourne. This memorial, a statue of an Australian First World War soldier, has 30 names on it and stands just across the park from where Sidney Green lived. There are numerous potential explanations for why his name is missing: by the time the Parkville memorial was commissioned and then unveiled in 1929, Irene Green may have moved away, or since her husband was technically missing she may not have wished to submit his name; there may have been some accidental, social or personal motivation. That he is on the Peterborough memorial shows that his life was not a straightforward case of born and died and represented in these areas: that his life touched that of others in the different places that he lived and was known.  An unexpected discovery was a photograph of Sgt Sidney Frank William Harold Green, 59th Bn, Australian Imperial Force in the First World War Bond of Sacrifice, a published photographic biographical roll of honour. This photo and entry would have been another means of commemorating the life of Sidney Green.  

In looking into the memorials to one individual lost in the horror of Fromelles in 1916, I realised that although these men have been missing for over 90 years, there are traces of their complex life paths in the memorials, traces that have been made manifest by those who knew them. I was also left with the question of whether, when a name is missing from a memorial, is this not just as vocal an indication of the movements, hopes or errors of those they left behind?

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article by UKNIWM office volunteer Gabrielle Orton

 

   After my trip to Ypres some weeks back, I have been looking at the different national attitudes of Britain and Germany to commemoration, in terms of the layout and formation of the military cemeteries.

 

In the Ypres Salient alone, there are over 137 British military burial grounds, ranging from those like Ramparts cemetery, with only 200 graves, to Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth War cemetery in the world, with almost 12,000 graves and a memorial wall to the missing.  The vast number of British built cemeteries is partly due to the Belgian’s willingness to give the Allied forces, who fought for Belgium’s freedom, land to commemorate their war dead.  But the number and nature of British cemeteries throughout Europe also reflects the British public’s wish for a physical expression of the sacrifice made during war, a demand which was met by an official, uniform and sympathetic response from the British government, through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

 

For the first time, nearly every local community in Britain was deeply affected by the devastating loss of human life from a single war.  The cemeteries and war memorials in Ypres emphasise this modern concept of sacrifice, for instance through the ‘cross of sacrifice’, designed by Blomfield, which can be found in every CWGC cemetery worldwide.  The sword on the cross associates the Christian symbolism of hope born from suffering, with the military role of the soldiers in the surrounding graves.  Even the Menin Gate in Ypres, which is a form of triumphal arch and has overtones of Imperial victory, does not lose sight of the deaths of individuals by the incised list of 54,896 names of missing WWI casualties.

 

The uniformity of the rows and rows of white gravestones in the CWGC plots, regardless of the casualty’s rank or place of birth, illustrates the development of equality during WWI.  Although the recognition of lower ranked soldiers can be seen in Boer war memorials, the ‘citizen’ nature of the army in WWI and the introduction of conscription in 1916 contributed to a change in attitude of society towards the treatment and commemoration of war dead.  This change can be detected in the British government’s policy of April 1915, to retain all bodies of casualties in France and Belgium, regardless of the rank or wealth of the families concerned.  In all, it is no coincidence that after ¾ million British soldiers died for their country, every man obtained the right to vote in 1918.

 

In contrast, Langemark German military cemetery has a strikingly different layout and atmosphere.  Though the land was originally leased for only 30 years, it was later granted on a permanent basis, as one of four German cemeteries in the Ypres Salient.  Starting as a small group of graves in 1915, it became a ‘collecting cemetery’ in 1954, eventually bringing the total number of burials to 44,234 (nearly 4 times the number at Tyne Cot.)

 

It is therefore partly due to the limited space available that the cemetery seems to lack the focus on the individual that the CWGC gravestones give; for example 8 soldiers are buried in each plot.  But it seems that it was almost part of Volksbund’s (German equivalent of the CWGC) policy; it was not until 1971 that grave markers were changed to give personal dates (before they had just grave numbers) and not until 1984 that Volksbund began researching and identifying some of the ‘unknown soldiers’ in the mass grave at the entrance.

 

But elements of the cemetery such as the mass grave known as ‘Kameraden Grab’ or Comrades’ Grave, seem to show more equality amongst soldiers.  For instance unlike the CWGC headstones, the still uniform grey granite grave markers in Langemark do not refer to regiments; instead there are divisional memorials at the sides of the cemetery surrounding the graves, giving an impression of a united German army, even in death.

 

Although the thick, dark, free standing tablets and the towering oak trees (traditionally symbolising strength) create a powerful image, there is inevitably an element of defeatism in the cemetery’s appearance.  Unlike the grand German memorial at Walhalla temple, made in the late 19th century, with its heroic busts, the Langemark cemetery has only the bronze statue of ‘Four Mourning Soldiers’ by Professor Emil Krieger. Though appropriate for such a sombre setting, the slightly abstract figures and the squat crosses dotted around the graves, seem to offer little hope for the future compared with say the elegant ‘cross of sacrifice’ or the smooth curves of the ‘stone of remembrance’ found in CWGC plots.

 

Although my trip to Ypres provided only a limited insight into these two countries’ attitudes to commemoration, it is clear from the architecture and layout of the cemeteries that they are very different, influenced obviously by the outcome of WWI and in Germany’s case the consequence of the Treaty of Versailles, including the prohibition of Germany from maintaining German military cemeteries outside their borders.  For Britain, WWI was part of the country’s gradual emergence as a modern democracy and one of the last wars of both Imperial and local importance.  But for Germany, WWI dealt a short term humiliating blow to its international strength and respectability and following WWII, many may have wished to forget commemoration, along with its military associations.

 

What other impressions have people of the British and German cemeteries?  I wonder if there is a marked difference in attitudes towards commemoration between the different countries in the allied forces as well?

 

Private Robert Burns, killed in action on 1 July 1916 at the start of the Battle of the SommeWe recently answered an enquiry from a member of the public who wrote to tell us that she had started what she hoped would become a tradition with her young daughter on Remembrance Day.  They walk to the local war memorial and leave a poppy with a message.  Each year they will pick out one name and try to find out more information  about that person.  

She wrote to us because she was looking for advice on how to go about this.

The first thing we do is check our records to see if we hold any information about the people named on the memorials. Unfortunately in this case we didn’t yet have that information. 

The next simple thing to do (if the memorial is to the First or Second World war) is to try to find the individual on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Debt of Honour database.  This would then give you useful information such as age, service number and regiment, which can be used in further enquiries.

CWGC Debt of Honour database

However, if the only information you have are surname and first initial (which is very common on First and Second World War memorials) then it could be very hard to identify which of the many people with the same name is the one on your local memorial.  Obviously, it’s easier with more unusual surnames.  Even with common names it might still be possible.  Sometimes next-of-kin were listed and you may find someone with family who were living locally.  A word of warning regarding the regiments though, don’t assume that just because someone is listed as serving in a local regiment that they lived there.  Men could be recruited for any regiment and sometimes moved between regiments over the course of the war.

Another very useful thing to do is to contact your local history society.  It’s possible that someone has already done this research.  If that draws a blank, you might try looking through the archives of old local newspapers.  These should be in a local studies centre – usually stored on microfiche. Try to find a newspaper report for the unveiling, as these sometimes listed the full names. If you can find out the full first name, you’ll have a better chance finding him on the CWGC database. Most First World War memorials were unveiled sometime between 1919 and 1925 so start with those dates and expand from there. 

The other thing you can look for in local newspaper archives are obituaries and reports from soldiers at the front which were often printed. These can provide interesting information about the person you are looking for and others serving at the time.

Once you have positively identified the individual there are other sources for research, such as unit war diaries and service records. Below is a link to some useful downloadable PDF leaflets on how to get started.

Click for information sheets about tracing service personnel

Last week, while in France for the Rugby World Cup, the England team made a journey to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval in France.  In the presence of the full squad of players, the captain and head coach laid a poppy wreath at the memorial.

Read more from The Times

Like other sportsmen, rugby players were among the casualties of the World Wars and the UKNIWM has records of a number of club memorials as well as those at the Rugby Union headquarters at Twickenham, one of which records 27 England internationals from the First World War, and 14 from the Second.

According to the report of the Thiepval ceremony in The Times, 185 international players from the eight leading rugby playing nations lost their lives in the two World Wars.

One of the most notable memorials to a rugby player is that to the England international Lt Col Edgar Mobbs, DSO in Northampton.  It features the bronze statue of a robed female figure representing the goddess of fame.

Northampton also has a memorial to Walter Tull, a footballer with Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town. He was the first Black Briton to be given a commission in the British Army in a combat role.

Last week I wrote about how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates each First and Second World War casualty with either a grave or memorial inscription (‘Remembering each casualty’).  

This week saw the burial of Private Richard Lancaster whose remains were identified after being discovered during an archaeological dig in Ypres last year.  Pte Lancaster was killed on 10 November 1914 and his body was not recovered.

Read about the funeral from BBC NEWS

Following his burial in Prowse Point Military cemetery on Wednesday, Pte Lancaster’s name will now be removed from the Ploegstreet memorial to the missing.  This has been noted on his CWGC record, which now reads,

Also commemorated on Panel 4 of the Ploegsteert Memorial, Belgium – to be removed when the panel is next replaced.”

We received a letter recently from someone asking for help locating the name of their father (a Second World War Navy casualty) on a war memorial.  She had visited the two large Commonwealth War Grave Commission memorials in the area but had been unable to locate his name on either. 

The answer to the query can be found in the fact that the enquirer had recently discovered her father was buried in a nearby Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is the official body responsible for commemorating each individual from the Commonwealth who died in the First and Second World Wars with either a headstone (where the grave exists) or a memorial inscription (where no body was recovered).  

The CWGC commemorates each individual once and once only.  If a grave exists, the individual will not additionally be listed on a memorial.  This also means that if a body is subsequently located, identified and buried, that person’s name will actually be removed from the relevant memorial.

The purpose of these CWGC memorials is to allow people to be commemorated where no grave exists, rather than as a list of all those who were killed, which explains why this enquirer was unable to find her father’s name.

Her father’s name may still be listed on a non-CWGC memorial where he lived or served and that is something we can help to search for.

All memorials tell stories of personal sacrifice but, among them, some stand out for the scale of the loss they describe.

In Manor Park Cemetery, East London, there lies a memorial tablet to 25 civilians who died as a result of enemy action in the city during the Second World War. 

Leyton Air Raid Casualties

On this tablet six individuals share the same surname:  James Siggins (age 40); Leslie Siggins (age 11); Peter Siggins (age 6); Betty Siggins (age 3); James William Siggins (16 months); and Stanley Siggins (age 7 weeks).

If we look for them on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Debt of Honour Register we discover that they were one family, a father and his five children, who were all killed on 16 February 1945, at the same address in Crownfield Road. 

CWGC Search result for ‘Siggins’ 

Their mother Sarah Siggins survived although whether she was in the same house at the time of the incident or elsewhere, we don’t know.  It is also uncertain whether there were any other surviving children. 

Here is a story of almost unimaginable loss.  A mother who, in one day, lost her husband and five children, the youngest just 7 weeks old.  But the existence of this memorial at least means that this family’s remarkable sacrifice has been recorded.